Nations and Peoples – Five Comments on the Logic of the Russo-Ukrainian War
By Antonio Carapella
No land can emerge from conflict unchanged. One cannot help but remember the profound changes imposed by the world wars on Europe, which in fifty years was radically reshaped from a continent in which seemingly antediluvian empires struggled to modernize to one in which ethnic and political identities seemed all but concrete.
Without a doubt, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the only conflict in the continent’s memory which has even approximated the level of havoc wreaked by those wars. Thus, one can hardly expect the people of the two countries, which last fought in the aftermath of the October Revolution, to remain unaffected.
Although history may be determined by the interests of states and their leaders, rationally calculated through fine-tuned political savvy and vast armies of advisors and bureaucrats, spin doctors and experts, the memories of their peoples play an equally decisive role in determining its future.
Hence the aim of these five analyses: to clarify and unify the war’s disparate themes and consequences, to ford the vast river between geopolitics and the cultures and realities of peoples. This collection begins with the former element, an attempt to analyze the reasons behind the Russian Army’s squandered advantage in Kyiv, quickly followed by a critique of the neo-Tsarist views of Moscow’s siloviki, who advance an idea of modern Ukraine identical and subordinate to its ancestors. To this one must add the importance of the war’s effect on ordinary Russians, and what the sanctions might mean for Vladimir Putin’s future.
Yet, the future of another people, the Crimean Tatars, also hangs in the balance of the conflict as it is pulled by conflicting loyalties. However, one cannot forget the impact the war will have on the ideas of American conservatives who often play a decisive role in determining the foreign policy of the giant across the Atlantic.
With these themes in mind, Aleph would like to introduce the final elements of its special collection on the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Whither the Red Cavalry: Moscow’s Army in Light of Ukrainian Resistance
By Iacopo Brini
By the time this addendum is published, alongside the analysis it refers to, the dawn of the twenty-first day of fighting in Ukraine will be shining its first light onto new bodies to bury, new arms and vehicles to salvage, and more chaos and devastation across the occupied and contested lands of Eastern Ukraine. When only weeks before, the geopolitical situation of the area seemed a tense one indeed, yet elements of stability remained visible; in the great game of East versus West, the Kremlin looked like it was simply flexing its muscles and showing its enemy that if it wanted to, it could invade Ukraine.
This posturing was nothing new on the international stage, and the world was left completely oblivious to Vladimir Putin’s real intentions, thinking them so unimaginably foolish and dangerous for a leader well-known for his masterful balancing of subtle diplomacy and the iron fist of his military. Putin, however, has done the unthinkable and once again proven that, despite its best efforts, the West remains utterly incapable of predicting his actions, let alone getting a good enough reading of his intentions to counteract his moves before they begin. This time, however, Putin just might have overplayed his hand.
The Russian Army’s usual shock-and-awe technique, a Soviet-era strategy heavily reliant on mechanized infantry columns spearheaded by armor units, punching through enemy defenses and taking key objectives, seems to have backfired on numerous fronts. Firstly, air superiority was not achieved despite an impressive long range missile strike campaign in the first few days, leaving the columns both exposed to air assaults and deprived of anti-infantry air support; secondly, the armored spearheads were battered and bloodied by anti-tank weaponry deployed en masse by standard Ukrainian infantry and even last-minute civilian volunteers; thirdly and probably most importantly, the columns themselves did not bring regiments of professional, battle hardened veterans to the front, but scores of unmotivated young conscripts, apparently coaxed into participating through the most desperate means (threats, lies, and propaganda).
For now, the situation remains extremely volatile and the outcome of this war is not as guaranteed as many thought it was before it started. Only when the dust has settled will it finally be possible to ascertain what led Putin to this action, and whether it was excessive secrecy, lack of planning, or infighting from the upper echelons of the military that led to his forces squandering what seemed like an insurmountable advantage in a matter of days. For now, the world remains transfixed, eagerly awaiting an imminent solution to this crisis.
From Rurik to the Siloviki: The Cultural Logic of the Invasion
By Michele Mauri
When Vladimir Putin announced a special military operation in Ukraine in late February of this year, the vast majority of reactions understandably focused on the conflict’s military, political and economic implications – many of them, however, missed the wider cultural context, despite Putin having made it more than clear in his speech.
“I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” These were the words the Russian president used in his address on February 21. Two are the intertwined concepts underpinning his argument: the so-called Russian World or Русский Мир, and the concept of a Pan-Russian or Triune Russian Nation (Общерусский Народ or Триединый Русский Народ). The first refers to the broader sphere of Russian culture as going beyond the borders of Russia proper and encompassing all Russian-speaking peoples, while the latter is a view of Russia of clear Tsarist descent, seeing the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples as part of a single overarching Nation, a single Rus’. In fact, the address was not the first time Putin expressed such a view, as he argues precisely that in his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.
The claims of the Russian president, when discussed, have always been challenged, taken at face value without a proper understanding of what they entail and of what they represent. To put it in the simplest possible terms, they represent a strain of thought widely held by the Russian siloviki (силовики́) élite, which combines pre-Soviet, Russian Imperial ideology with some Soviet paradigms. And, strange and baseless though they may appear, these claims have, if not the full backing of historical truth, at least some degree of veracity.
Russia and Ukraine have, up until very recently, indeed been considered as part of a single, unified yet differentiated, all-Russian Nation. From the establishment of the Kievan Rus’ onwards (save for the two to three hundred years of Tatar hegemony over Russia and Lithuanian domination over Ukraine), Russians and Ukrainians have been part of a single polity, be it the Rus’, the Empire or the Soviet Union. Russia and Ukraine are two inextricably linked countries, whose histories intertwine over and over throughout time. They are not, however, the same single nation they might have been a mere 150 years ago.
As Serhii Plokhi notes, although Ukraine and Kyiv in particular have been central in defining what Russia is and what it is not, a separate Ukrainian nation developed under Russia’s wing at the time of the Tsars and under Soviet rule in particular to the point where any argument stating that the two peoples are “the same” is better left in the dustbin of history.
Although geopolitical calculations, power politics and Russia’s fear of NATO expansion come into play and cannot be excluded, they are only possible because they are based on a firm, if ever-so-slightly inaccurate, cultural and historical background. Looking at the situation from this point of view, the siloviki and Putin himself perceive Ukraine’s westward push not only as a geopolitical threat, but also as an attack aimed at a pillar of the Russian World, one of the three parts of the Триединый Русский Народ, the Triune Russian Nation, whether the West, and Ukraine, perceive it as such or not.
The End of Ideology: Dissent on Moscow’s Home Front
By Rose Bernardin
On February 27, 2,000 people were arrested in the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg for protesting against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. A total of 8,000 demonstrators detained across the country has been reported since the beginning of the Kremlin’s special military operation on February 24, with people of all ages and classes on the streets, risking penal sanctions (up to 15 years of imprisonment) to express their anger and disbelief towards the president and his actions.
Putin’s actions have been criticized by many Russian citizens for various reasons: if some older Russians are afraid to go back to a climate similar to the one of the Second World War, many more are generally distressed by the idea of a conflict with Ukraine, a country that has always historically had strong links with Russia.
Although surveys show that most people were already worried about the possibility of a Third World War, the invasion of Ukraine, especially through the enrollment of conscripts as young as 18, has not been welcomed with the support Putin was hoping for. The constant misinformation released by the official Russian press contributes to the people’s concerns, too: it admitted the death of 492 soldiers while the Ukrainian government reports killing ten times that amount.
Furthermore, most of the enlisted men (672,000 in total) were told that they were not going to penetrate Ukrainian soil but simply guard Russia’s borders, and the order to attack Ukraine, a nation with so many links and relations to the Russian population, came across as a shock to many of the new conscripts.
The resistance of Russian civilians could have important consequences regarding the development of the war: an unmotivated army might not last long, especially given that the resistance it is facing in Ukraine is tougher than expected. Soldiers have reported being given food meant for two or three days when they have now been fighting for more than a week. Furthermore, constant revolts and signs of opposition against the government bring out the image of a divided and weak country internationally.
Putin may be a ruthless leader strongly supported by Russia’s nationalists, but if his population starts showing more signs of defiance against the war, measures will definitely have to be taken and only two outcomes seem possible: a premature peace treaty or the escalation of repression.
Dual Loyalties: The Crimean Tatars in Dire Straits
By Dağhan Korkmaz
Ukraine’s Crimean Tatar minority has a long history, one often intersected by Russia’s presence and rarely immune to the Kremlin’s ambitions.
The Crimean Tatars are a Muslim and Turkic ethnic group that speak the Crimean Tatar language. The Turkic people first appeared in Crimea in the 6th century, when Crimea fell under the rule of the Turkic Khaganate. In 1441, they founded the Crimean Khanate after the dissolution of the Golden Horde, a successor state of the Mongol Empire. Between the several successor states of the Golden Horde, namely the khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Sibir as well as the Nogai Horde, the Crimean Khanate was the last one to be conquered by the Russian Empire in late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Crimean Khanate between 1449 and 1783
After the fall of their khanate, the Crimean Tatars were forced out of Crimea in waves, leading to a gradual disappearance. The last wave hitting the Crimean Tatars was in 1944, when Joseph Stalin deemed them enemies of the state and deported around 200,000 remaining Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Siberia and Central Asia, banning their language and literature in the Soviet Union.
Inform Napalm’s illustration of the Crimean Tatar population through the years
Following Nikita Khrushchev’s era of de-Stalinization, some Crimean Tatars started returning to Crimea. Up until the Russian annexation in 2014, the Crimean Tatar minority was growing in numbers in the peninsula as schooling in its language flourished and the Crimean Tatar National Assembly had a degree of autonomy. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on March 18, 2014, the majority of Crimean Tatars voted in favor of Russian annexation.
However, the President of the Crimean Tatar National Assembly (QTMM), Refat Chubarov, contested this account, saying that out of 185,000 Crimean Tatar voters, only a thousand participated in the referendum. The QTMM, consequently, was banned by Russian authorities in 2016, with the ostensible claim of being a radical organization. Crimean Tatar national leaders like Mustafa Dzhemilev, first Chairman of the QTMM and member of the Ukrainian Parliament, and the aforementioned Chubarov were banned from entering Crimea. Others, like Ahtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, were sentenced to two years in prison. Furthermore, many unsolved murders and disappearances of Crimean Tatar activists began taking place following the annexation and go on to this day.
With Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, the Crimean Tatar minority is once again gravely concerned for its rights and finds itself in a similar position to the rest of the Ukrainian population. It has certainly not been spared any of the violence inflicted on the rest of the country. On the first day of the invasion, February 24, 17 year-old Crimean Tatar Emir Rustemov was killed by Russian shelling in the town of Henichesk in Kherson Oblast.
Furthermore, Crimean Tatar news agency Qırım.Aqiqat reports that Crimean Tatars in Crimea are being drafted into the Russian Army and that many Crimean Tatars do not want to fight for a regime that they perceive as aggressor against their relatives and counterparts on the Ukrainian side. Consequently, human rights activist Olga Skripnik suggested young Crimean Tatar men use every possibility they have to go against the draft. Another agency, Qırım News, reported that a Crimean Tatar member of Ukrainian parliament, Rustem Umerov, called for a mobilization of Crimean Tatars to take Crimea back from Russia.
In conclusion, Crimean Tatars, although largely loyal to Ukraine, are caught in the crossfire once again, a situation analogous to their position in World War II, when the invading German Army forcibly drafted many Crimean Tatar men, creating grounds for the USSR to blame the whole nation as Nazi colloborators. Once again, a change in the fate of the Green Island, as many Crimean Tatars refer to the peninsula, is being witnessed, with serious consequences for its civilian population.
Russia and American Politics: The GOP’s Ties to Putin’s Russia
By Antonio Caroli
In the wake of the largest military invasion of a sovereign state in Europe since World War II, an ongoing refugee crisis of as many as 2.5 million people fleeing their homes, and mounting tensions between the two largest nuclear powers on Earth, few have been paying attention to the current state of American politics. However, the problematic relationship that the Republican Party has cultivated with Russia in recent years should not be ignored.
Russia has been one of the “hot topics” of American politics since the 2016 presidential elections, when Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton openly accused the Russian government of interfering in the election in order to help her opponent, Republican candidate (and eventual president) Donald Trump.
Although the following special counsel’s investigation concluded that illegal Russian interference in the election occurred (and was welcomed by the Trump campaign), it failed to prove that some sort of coordination with the Russian government was established.
Since then, however, the ties developed between some in Trump’s staff and Russian businessmen and officials have sparked growing attention.
For instance, Paul Manafort, a political consultant and lobbyist who briefly chaired Trump’s presidential campaign and had a long history of working with foreign autocrats (such as Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos) had offered political advice to Ukrainian pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych’s successful 2004 election campaign.
Furthermore, he worked on behalf of Ukrainian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of the Kremlin with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006, with the aim of promoting Russian interests in media coverage in Europe and the United States. After being convicted on eight charges of tax and bank fraud, Manafort was pardoned by Trump himself in 2020.
Other members of Trump’s inner circle have shown a high degree of ideological affinity with Putin’s Russia. Steve Bannon, ideologue of Trump’s early days into office and former White House chief strategist during his tenure, has repeatedly come out in support of Russia’s markedly conservative and anti-gay policies. Citing Putin as a bastion against the diffusion of liberal ideas among Western governments, many like Bannon see him as sympathetic to the “America First” wing of the GOP that often finds itself much more in agreement with Putin’s traditionalist and ultranationalist views than with those of its Democrat counterpart.
Trump himself, after all, has repeatedly questioned the necessity of NATO being actively supported by the US, while also publicly praising Putin and dismissing claims of his regime’s violent tactics.
The fact that this unprecedented way of viewing Russia has become increasingly mainstream while many American conservatives have voiced their outrage against COVID-related measures, and that this has translated to the self-contradictory co-existence of uncompromising libertarianism and sympathy with a repressive autocracy is certainly a defining element of the GOP’s ideology.
Furthermore, the first impeachment charges brought against Trump in early 2020 were triggered by his “quid pro quo” bid to obtain damaging information on Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son – who had been previously employed in a Ukrainian gas company – in exchange for military and financial aid to the country, all through a then-leaked phone call with current Ukraine president Zelenskiy.
Despite all of this, given the extent of the ongoing crisis, recent events have seen most Congressional Republicans decisively rooting for the Ukrainian cause, thus dissociating themselves from the pro-Putin position of the party’s most extreme wing, with recent polls of the GOP’s electorate confirming this realignment.
Whether the ongoing war might be a wake-up call for the very threat of Russia as a hostile and aggressive autocracy hinges on who will guide the party after the 2024 presidential elections.
Just recently, Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President often seen as a possible contender for the presidency, stated that “there is no room in this party for apologists for Putin,” while Trump himself had to walk back his previous praise for the Kremlin’s strongman, saying that “nobody has ever been tougher on Russia than me.”
Although this mostly bipartisan note struck in Washington after the invasion may be grounds to hope for a renewed commitment to Atlanticism, it is not unlikely that this crisis could stoke the flames of political polarization in years to come. Today’s GOP remains, after all, loyal to Trumpism, and one might even see a Trump-like figure in the White House in the following years.
As Russia becomes increasingly isolated thanks to piling sanctions mainly coming from the West, only a handful of autocratic countries seem to show sympathy to Putin’s irredentist cause (among them China, whose aspirations regarding a possible future conquest of Taiwan should also be a warning sign).
To counterbalance this influence, the United States is now expected to lead a broad coalition of (mostly) democratic nations, and time will tell which values it will choose to rely upon: those of an authoritarian and jingoist regime, or the long-standing tradition of liberal democracy.